Thousands grounded until next week
Volcanic cloud has spread to much of mainland Europe
HUNDREDS of thousands of stranded air passengers who hoped for lift-off this weekend will remain grounded until next week at the earliest as the plume of volcanic ash shut down most of European airspace yesterday.
Ryanair last night cancelled a further 400 flights into and out of the country, with the no-frills airline grounding its Irish fleet until Monday lunchtime at the earliest.
The airline's chief executive Michael O'Leary described the situation as "unprecedented".
Aer Lingus will not be flying anywhere in Europe from Ireland ahead of a further review of the situation at lunchtime today.
However, Met Eireann is not predicting a significant improvement in conditions so that window is likely to be extended.
More than 17,000 flights across Europe were grounded yesterday in what has become the biggest disruption to air travel since the Twin Tower terrorism attacks.
Some 100,000 travellers to and from Ireland have been inconvenienced in the first two days of the travel chaos, with just 11 of the 460 flights scheduled to arrive or depart Dublin Airport getting the green light yesterday.
And with the ash cloud predicted to hold steady above much of the UK and southern Ireland, the problem is set to continue.
"All the Ryanair flights into and out of Ireland, the UK, Scandinavia and the north European coastline are cancelled until 1300 hours or lunchtime on Monday," Mr O'Leary said last night.
"That is because all the weather indications show that this volcanic ash is going to continue to be blown down across the UK, across Ireland, and it's not going to be safe."
Some Aer Lingus transatlantic flights did fly from Dublin yesterday with a single flight leaving Shannon, but there were no commercial flights whatsoever from Cork.
The Irish Aviation Authority re-opened Irish airspace -- apart from a small pocket off the south coast -- at 10am yesterday.
But with the cloud spreading to cover the UK and much of mainland Europe it made little practical difference with only a limited number of domestic flights.
The IAA last night closed Cork, Kerry and Waterford airports from 9pm until 11am today as the ash cloud moved from the south of Ireland back towards the south coast. Shannon was closed from 4am today until 10am.
All other airports remain open but routes to the UK, continental Europe and the south of Spain were closed until further notice.
"The indications are that the ash cloud will present a serious risk to flights in and out of Cork, Waterford and Kerry Airports and Shannon Airport to a lesser degree. As a result we have no alternative but to impose these restrictions," Philip Hughes from the IAA said last night.
"Irish airports and Irish airspace, with the exception of a block off the south coast, have been operating without restrictions since 10am.
"However, airlines were unable to capitalise on this arrangement because of the severe restrictions in UK and European airspace."
The Government's Taskforce on Emergency Planning also met yesterday to discuss the situation.
According to advice from Met Eireann, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health, there are no air quality, public health or environmental concerns.
Met Eireann has predicted the volcanic ash in the upper atmosphere is likely to largely miss Ireland until tomorrow at the earliest.
Forecaster Evelyn Cusack said an area of high pressure was keeping the plume from settling directly over the country, and this is expected to remain the case until tomorrow at least, with cooler weather moving in on Monday and Tuesday. However, some rain tomorrow could see the ash falling to the ground.
Transport Minister Noel Dempsey said the Department of Health's reassurances on there being no health implications were "very solidly based".
There were reports of unusual dust deposits in many parts of the west and the northwest yesterday afternoon, but Met Eireann said it was unlikely to be volcanic ash.
The prevailing winds are expected to return to their usual direction blowing from the southwest on Wednesday, a feature which is expected to take the plume away from Ireland.
"We can see an end in sight to it by the middle of next week," Ms Cusack said. The volcano continued to erupt yesterday, although rain predicted for Iceland is expected to lessen the impact of new emissions.
The Taoiseach last night said it was impossible for Ireland to have a plan to cope with an act of nature as big as the ash cloud, and that the government would be guided by aviation and meteorology experts.
"These are acts of nature that are taking place -- what we have to try and make sure and do is not compromise aviation safety," he said.
Mr Cowen flew into Cork Airport on an Air Corps helicopter yesterday. He said the Government would have to adopt a wait-and-see approach.
Galway airport re-opened yesterday afternoon, while only a limited domestic flights service is running at Knock airport.
Aer Arann operated a limited service on domestic routes between Dublin, Derry, Galway, Sligo, Donegal and Knock.